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11.51: Injuries of the Nervous System

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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No diving?

Make sure you always heed the advice of signs that say "no diving." Diving in shallow water can lead to serious injuries to your nervous system.

Injuries of the Nervous System

Injuries to the central nervous system may damage tissues of the brain or spinal cord. If an injury is mild, a person may have a full recovery. If an injury is severe, it may cause permanent disability or even death. Brain and spinal cord injuries most commonly occur because of car crashes or sports accidents. The best way to deal with such injuries is to try to prevent them.

Brain Injuries

Brain injuries can range from mild to extremely severe, but even mild injuries need medical attention. Brain injuries can result from falls, car accidents, violence, sports injuries, and war and combat. Falls are the most common cause of brain injuries, particularly in older adults and young children.

The mildest and most common type of brain injury is a concussion. This is a bruise on the surface of the brain. It may cause temporary problems such as headache, drowsiness, and confusion. Most concussions in young people occur when they are playing sports, especially contact sports like football. Other sports, like soccer, boxing, baseball, lacrosse, skateboarding, and hockey can also result in concussions. A concussion normally heals on its own in a few days.

A single concussion is unlikely to cause permanent damage. But repeated concussions may lead to lasting problems. People who have had two or more concussions may have life-long difficulties with memory, learning, speech, or balance. For this reason, concussions are treated very seriously among athletes and in professional sports. You can see an animation of how a concussion occurs by visiting http://www.pennmedicine.org/encyclopedia/em_DisplayAnimation.aspx?gcid=000034&ptid=17.

A person with a serious brain injury usually suffers permanent brain damage. These brain injuries usually occur when an external mechanical force, such as a violent blow or jolt to the head or body, causes brain dysfunction. An object penetrating the skull, such as a bullet or a shattered piece of the skull, also can cause traumatic brain injury. As a result, the person may have trouble talking or controlling body movements. Symptoms depend on what part of the brain was injured. Serious brain injuries can also cause personality changes and problems with mental abilities such as memory. Medicines, counseling, and other treatments may help people with serious brain injuries recover from, or at least learn to cope with, their disabilities.

Symptoms of severe brain injuries include

  • the loss of consciousness from several minutes to hours,
  • profound confusion,
  • slurred speech,
  • the inability to awaken from sleep,
  • seizures,
  • loss of coordination,
  • persistent headache or headache that worsens.

Spinal Cord Injuries

A spinal cord injury is damage to any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal. This injury often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.

Spinal cord injuries make it difficult for messages to travel between the brain and body. They may cause a person to lose the ability to feel or move parts of the body. This is called paralysis. Whether paralysis occurs—and what parts of the body are affected if it does—depends on the location and seriousness of the injury. In addition to car crashes and sports injuries, diving accidents are a common cause of spinal cord injuries. Quadriplegia means your arms, hands, trunk, legs and pelvic organs are all affected by your spinal cord injury. Paraplegia means the paralysis affects all or part of the trunk, legs and pelvic organs. These people can still use their arms and hands.

Some people recover from spinal cord injuries. But many people are paralyzed for life. Thanks to the work of Christopher Reeve (Figure below), more research is being done on spinal cord injuries now than ever before. For example, scientists are trying to discover ways to regrow damaged spinal cord neurons.

Former "man of steel" Superman star Christopher Reeve (September 25, 1952 – October 10, 2004) was paralyzed from the neck down in a fall from a horse. The injury crushed his spinal cord so his brain could no longer communicate with his body.

If you suspect that someone has a back or neck injury:

  • don't move the injured person as permanent paralysis and other serious complications may result,
  • call 911 or your local emergency medical assistance number,
  • keep the person very still,
  • place heavy towels on both sides of the neck or hold the head and neck to prevent them from moving, until emergency care arrives,
  • provide basic first aid, such as stopping any bleeding and making the person comfortable, without moving the head or neck.


  • concussion: Bruise on the surface of the brain that can cause temporary problems such as headache, drowsiness, and confusion.
  • paralysis: Loss of ability to feel or move parts of the body.


  • Mild brain injuries, such as a concussion, normally heal on their own, while serious brain injuries can cause permanent physical and mental disabilities.
  • Spinal cord injuries can lead to paralysis, when a person loses the ability to feel or move parts of the body.


Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What kinds of problems can arise from damaged nerves?
  2. How do you think symptoms might vary between someone with a damaged peripheral nerve vs. a damaged central nerve? Explain your thinking fully.
  3. How can nerves become damaged? Can damaged nerves repair themselves?


  1. What are some possible consequences of a serious brain injury?
  2. Explain what causes paralysis.

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    Bruise on the surface of the brain that can cause temporary problems such as headache, drowsiness, and confusion.


    Loss of ability to feel or move parts of the body.

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    Date Created:
    Nov 29, 2012
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    Aug 30, 2016
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